The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Growing portion of FEMA disaster funding goes to admin costs, auditors say

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is spending an increasing portion of its disaster relief budget on administrative costs such as salaries for government workers and could save hundreds of millions of dollars by better controlling such expenses, federal auditors have found.

Between 2004 and 2013, FEMA spent $12.7 billion on administrative costs, which was 13 percent of its total expenses in responding to major disasters, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

That was double the average administrative cost percentages for disaster relief spent between 1989 and 1998, GAO said. The report, released Wednesday, defines administrative costs as salaries and benefits for workers, their travel expenses and incidentals such as purchasing passports and using automatic teller machines.

Though FEMA has taken steps to reduce overhead, it has not met its own internal targets for cutting spending, GAO said. “Had FEMA met its targets, administrative costs could have been reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars,’’ said the report, which added that the agency “lacks an integrated plan with time frames and milestones to hold senior officials accountable for achieving its goals to reduce and more effectively control costs.’’

House Republicans, who had requested the report, were critical of FEMA.

“The fact that FEMA spent $12.7 billion on administrative costs is unacceptable,’’ said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman House Homeland Security Committee. “FEMA should be spending money on vital assistance for those negatively impacted by disasters – not on excessive administrative costs. Taxpayers deserve responsible and effective disaster relief.’’

McCaul vowed that his committee will continue to monitor the agency.

Rafael Lemaitre, a FEMA spokesman, said the agency agreed with GAO and has “already taken significant steps to reduce administrative costs,’’ including making it a priority in FEMA’s 2014-2018 strategic plan.

“Disaster survivors deserve to receive effective delivery of assistance, and taxpayers deserve to know that we’re providing that support in the most efficient way possible,’’ Lemaitre said. “We can do both, and we’ve already taken significant action to reduce overhead costs while preserving our ability to provide assistance to disaster survivors quickly.’’

The report, which noted FEMA’s efforts to reduce administrative costs, is nonetheless a potential setback to an agency whose battered image has improved in recent years under Administrator Craig Fugate.

After its disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA won praise from disaster specialists and elected officials for its rapid response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Experts attributed the change to a law passed late in the George W. Bush administration that spurred the creation of FEMA teams that arrive on scene before disasters strike, along with other changes made under Fugate, such as smoother coordination with the Red Cross and better use of social media.